• On theists believing ridiculous, unscientific things, and Terror Management Theory

    Over at another post of mine, we have been discussing whether religion can and should be destroyed. During that conversation, the idea came up that Christians, in all probability, hold more ridiculous beliefs which are unscientific in nature; and also arose the connected idea that Christians, in a generalistic sense, are not as good at doing science, because they have a higher propensity to give up searching for answers. As The Thinker stated:

    If more theists are YECs than atheists, as is clearly the case, then theism does increase the tendency to give up searching for natural answers, and that hurts science…

    Theism by definition means you believe in a god who supernaturally intervenes in the world, therefore it is logically impossible that theism does not increase the tendency for one to jettison natural explanations in favor of supernatural ones. You simply want to argue against a strawman I’m not making here.

    In philosophy of religion, we have the term “God of the Gaps” for a reason. It is because there is a high frequency of believers inserting God into the causal chain where they cannot imagine, find or hypothesise any other causal entity. This was hotly contested by Luke Breuer, with comments like:

    And who says YEC doesn’t happen to protect against some sort of stupidity, like sickle cell anemia protects against malaria? Furthermore, you continue to assume that thinking you have a bead on the final cause means you stop looking for the efficient cause. You have been unable to establish this claim with evidence; you attempted with Newton and failed miserably…

    Surely you can show that more good science came out of some region as the religious rate went down? You’re claiming that if religion is dropped, better science is done. I just gave some possibilities for why this wouldn’t be the case.

    In another comment, The Thinker stated:

    I don’t base my objection to theism and desire for it to be destroyed solely on the fact that it increases scientific illiteracy and the tendency to seek supernatural explanations over natural ones, which we all know is harmful to science. There are other reasons which may have nothing to do with science.

    Luke countered:

    Can you show me either:

    (1) upon ‘theist’ → ‘atheist’ conversion, a scientist becomes better
    (2) upon ‘atheist’ → ‘theist’ conversion, a scientist becomes worse

    ? Can you demonstrate either (1) or (2), directly, with causation and not just correlation? What I’m saying here is that if what you say is true, then(1) and/or (2) ought to happen, in reality. Furthermore, if what you say is true, then (1) or (2) should be pretty prominently true. Do you agree, or disagree?…

    Jonathan Pearce, do you have a single shred of evidence that e.g. Christians make worse scientists?

    The Thinker pointed out that certain scientists have given up searching for answers when the God of the Gaps does the trick, for them:

    Newton also thought that angels pushed the planets in their orbits to correct for his inability to predict their orbits properly. Every attempt to invoke the supernatural that was explained was explained naturally. Theism increases the tendency to give up searching and invoke supernatural explanations without any evidence. Look at all the folks down at the Discovery Institute if you want evidence…

    In a letter to the Reverend Dr. Richard Bentley in 1692 Isaac Newton wrote: “To your second query I answer that the motions which the planets now have could not spring from any natural cause alone but were impressed by an intelligent agent.”…

    What kind of evidence would convince you that “statistically, theism hurts science more than atheism.” When you consider that, “White evangelical Protestants have the highest denial rate (55 percent) [of evolution], closely followed by the group across all religions who attend services on average at least once a week (49 percent).”* It definitely shows that the more religious you are, the more likely you will reject natural explanations over supernatural ones. This situation is also apparent in the Islamic world, where larger numbers of people reject evolution than in the more secular countries.

    Luke responded with a version of the No True Scotsmen fallacy and raising the bar unrealistically high:

    Now, that being said, you haven’t shown that “theism hurts science more than atheism”; at best, you’ve shown that “one form of theism hurts science more than ???“. What I suggest you do, The Thinker, is tabulate all of the actual evidence you have, and note a few things:

    1. What group was sampled? (e.g. just US?)
    2. What groups were being compared to what groups? (e.g. Protestants? all those who believe in religion?)
    3. What was the sample size?
    4. How big was the impact? (note the mean and the standard deviation)
    5. What was the p-value?

    Flippantly, I chimed in:

    Shall we have a game of “how many theists and atheists believe humans have been able to live to 930?”

    Now, I could list the denominations which explicitly and officially deny evolution. That is to say that despite and in spite of the evidence, these people are presuppositionally opposed to one of the most defensible scientific theories. That is grossly unscientific. And YEC’s are not a small segment of, say, the US Christian population. How many Americans deny evolution? I think it is about a 1/3 now. Are these people atheistic? Not a chance, in the main. Such denial is the remit of religionists. It is clear, to me at least, that religion predisposes someone, probabilistically, to believe in or adhere to more ridiculous ideas. I looked at this in my post “Why do normal people believe ridiculous things?” which takes to task the utterly proposterous idea of a global flood as reported in the Bible.

    We could look at causality here. Is it religious content which causes this, or is it a third cause? Well, there are certainly denominations and groups who actually dogmatically and doctrinally, if you like, rule out evolution. But if you, as a Christian, were to say that there is something else, perhaps a thinking style, which causes both religious belief and adherence to silly ideas, then you are letting in determinism into causality of belief. And that is not comfortable for the theist!

    Luke made a tirade of points, many of which I do not have the time here to delve into:

    Precisely. And if you cannot show me either:

         (1) upon ‘theist’ → ‘atheist’ conversion, a scientist becomes better
    (2) upon ‘atheist’ → ‘theist’ conversion, a scientist becomes worse

    , then all the data in the world that you gather will make me deeply suspect that:

         (3) ceteris paribus, being a theist makes you worse

    , and then, I will doubt the following claim

         (4) the world would be better off without religion

    And yet, the very title of your blog post implies (4). Yeah, you and The Thinker have collected quite a few facts. And yet, when you attempt to put them all together to assert (4), your case falls apart if you cannot showcausation, like in (1) or (2).

    Remember, the question here is not:

         (5) being a theist can lead to some badness

    That fails to make a comparison. We must ask instead whether the following is true:

         (6) being a theist leads to more badness than being an atheist

    For we know that humans in general do and think a lot of stupid things. Can you show (6)?

    Finally, in the strongest terms possible, I assert:

         (7) level of fundamentalism ≠ level of seriousness about religious belief

    Causation is problematic, for sure, because ultimate causation is the Big Bang r whatever notion you have of what happened at that (nn) singularity.

    But, in simple terms, as mentioned, a highly religious person may have other reasons for being highly religious, and very conservative. But the denial of evolution is clearly driven by religious and theological dogma. Luke has admitted as much about himself. He used to deny evolution, for religious reasons.

    Psychology and Belief

    I have had children tell me that evolution can’t be true because of X or Y religious reasons. I have never, ever heard such reasoning from a secular position. My own sister, a nurse living in New Zealand, denied, to me, evolution. I asked her why. She didn’t know. It came from her church. It turns out that she did not have enough knowledge of evolution to be able to deny it properly, yet she still did on religious grounds.

    One of my talks for my God on Trial talk had a vocal fundamental Christian who denied evolution. It was great getting him to understand he did not have enough knowledge of evolution to be able to do that.

    One of my best friends is a theologian who started the Tippling Philosophers. In our early days, he was a more conservative Christian (his theological evolution is a fascinating topic) and denied evolution. We argued massively. I put point after point across. He countered it with typical Christian-based shite. Eventually, he contacted Conway Morris, a Christian evolutionary biologist who convinced him of its truth by email using exactly the same arguments as me. The old authority from an in-group member, eh!

    But it was his religious belief which drove him to deny it. With every step towards liberalism, he has become a better scientist. Literally, to the point that he is now studying for another degree, in psychology. I could talk to you at great length about him, and he would be a great example of how someone’s mind can become less muddied by the need for religious adherence. He is so much more likely now to follow evidence, causality and sound philosophy in his thinking. It’s great to see. He still, very tenuously, holds on to his faith, and has his doubts, but…

    I can give, time and again, anecdotal as well as statistical evidence to suggest and support such claims as have been made here. I know of no evidence that can remotely suggest that atheists deny something like evolution on account of, well, anything. Look a the Texas Board of Education and tell me that is not driven by religious zeal. Zuckerman and Silberman’s work is also interesting to refer to concerning intelligence and religious belief, though, again, causality is key.

    You could look at the many studies into scientists and religiosity, and draw many conclusions, such that religious people are less likely to become scientists etc.

    It’s a simple game of probability. I think Luke is flapping here.

    Here is another nugget to add into the mix.

    “Darren Sherkat of Southern Illinois University analyzed the results (paper in Social Science Quarterly —behind a firewall). He threw out questions relating to hot-button issues for religious conservatives, like evolution, but kept in questions on the big bang and continental drift. Even when they got a pass on evolution questions, Sherkat found that sectarian Protestants (that is, evangelicals), Catholics, and fundamentalists scored significantly lower than secular Americans on the basic science literacy quiz. He controlled for variables like low educational attainment, income disadvantages, ethnicity, and regional effects (like being in the South), and still found that conservative religious affiliation drove scores down. Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education found the same thing.” http://qideas.org/articles/sci… [my emphasis]

    And finally, given that analytical thinking is closer to science and the scientific method than intuitive thinking, it is important to note that there is good research to suggest that religious people are more likely to be the latter and less likely the former.

    For example, Shenhav et al’s research shows that cognitive styles influence belief in God.

    Gervais and Norenzayan show that:

    Individual differences in the tendency to analytically override initially flawed intuitions in reasoning were associated with increased religious disbelief. Four additional experiments provided evidence of causation, as subtle manipulations known to trigger analytic processing also encouraged religious disbelief. Combined, these studies indicate that analytic processing is one factor (presumably among several) that promotes religious disbelief. Although these findings do not speak directly to conversations about the inherent rationality, value, or truth of religious beliefs, they illuminate one cognitive factor that may influence such discussions.

    So it doesn’t really matter which way causality goes, or whether, say, thinking styles determine religiosity AND scientific literacy. The end result is the same.

    The core idea that we were looking at was, does religion more generally lead to a greater tendency to believe silly things and be unscientific (qua obtain worse scientists)?

    Well, I have shown some research to show that a certain way of thinking can lead to belief in religion and can be misappropriated to believe in 930-year-old people and a denial of evolution, often on behest of the religious movement and this is something which does not happen in the atheist movement. But we can take this one step further.

    Terror Management Theory


    As Wiki states:

    In social psychologyterror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.[1][2] The theory was originally proposed by Jeff GreenbergSheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski.[1]

    The simplest examples of cultural values which manage the terror of death are those that purport to offer literal immortality (e.g. belief in afterlife, religion).[3] However, TMT also argues that other cultural values – including those that are seemingly unrelated to death – offer symbolic immortality. For example, value of national identity,[4] posterity,[5] cultural perspectives on sex,[6] and human superiority over animals[6] have all been linked to death concerns in some manner. In many cases these values are thought to offer symbolic immortality by providing the sense that one is part of something greater that will ultimately outlive the individual (e.g. country, lineage, species).

    Because cultural values determine that which is meaningful, they are also the basis for self-esteem. TMT describes self-esteem as being the personal, subjective measure of how well an individual is living up to their cultural values.[2] Like cultural values, self-esteem acts to protect one against the terror of death. However, it functions to provide one’s personal life with meaning, while cultural values provide meaning to life in general.

    TMT is derived from anthropologist Ernest Becker‘s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction The Denial of Death, in which Becker argues most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. The terror of absolute annihilation creates such a profound – albeit subconscious – anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it. On large scales, societies build symbols: laws, religious meaning systems, cultures, and belief systems to explain the significance of life, define what makes certain characteristics, skills, and talents extraordinary, reward others whom they find exemplify certain attributes, and punish or kill others who do not adhere to their cultural worldview. On an individual level, self-esteem provides a buffer against death-related anxiety.

    The idea is that religious belief is very much affiliated with a belief in immortality in some way, and so reminders of our mortality (mortality salience) affect our religious beliefs and vice versa. Threats to our belief aggravate ideas of mortality, and vice versa.

    Let’s look at this in a particularly religious context with regard to what is being talked about here. Can this TMT give credence to the notion that religious people are more prone to being irrational and thus slightly less scientific in their approach to claims about the world? Well, it turns out that biblical literalists who have their worldview challenged or threatened have not only their anxieties stoked (such that their views are wrong etc), but their own immortality challenged.

    In other words, there is something deeply, deeply problematic with challenging preconceived ideals and conclusions that such fundamentalists hold. You aren’t just challenging abstract ideas about how their god works; you are challenging their immortality, their infinite and perfect future existence. There is literally nothing more amazing you could challenge, in conception. The stakes are enormous. Thus the process of being challenged and changing their minds based on evidence is fraught with issue. This goes some way to explaining why it is so difficult to convince YECs of the incorrectness of their views. You are essentially saying they won’t live forever. That’s a really big barricade to rational thought.

    YEC and Christian scientists are human. They have these same thought mechanisms. Challenging their conclusions, in relevant fields, might very well challenge their feelings of immortality. And, likewise, if they can find conclusions which bolster their worldview, this will also bolster their feelings of self-esteem and immortality. There is so much on the line here, not just science for science’s sake.

    As a real world example, the work of ex-atheist John Sanford, in his scientific endeavours, has gone rather leftfield, precisely (it seems) because of his newfound religious views. It’s not just about the scientific research of these people, but the way that these ‘scientists’ go about promoting their views. The Discovery Institute and AiG and similar organisations have such nefarious and underhand ways of promoting their pseudoscientific bullshit as to really damage people like Luke’s cases.

    The idea with TMT is that it becomes a whole lot more than an appraisal of facts, it becomes an emotional decision as it is their ticket to immortality which raises their own feelings of death when those facts are challenged.

    Work has been done on what happens to beliefs where creationism and evolution are involved. Evolution becomes a threat to their actual immortality and they reject ideas that they are connected  to other animals and species under mortality salience.

    See the Reasonable Doubts podcast on TMT for more information on the actual research alluded to here.


    Although I haven’t been able to comprehensively look at all of the points here out of the need to be concise, it seems clear to me that there are some conclusions which are reasonable to infer.

    It is certainly the case that atheists and non-theists are disproportionally represented in science (83% of general US public believe in God, 33% of scientists). Thus there is a correlation of being scientifically minded, I posit, and disbelief. Thus in general terms, one can claim, I believe, that it is more likely that an atheist will be a better scientist. That is not to say that an atheist scientist is better than a Christian scientist. That is a different question which I think Luke took on in a sort of straw man equivocation.

    Together with ideas that atheists have a more ratio-analytic thinking style than believers, and that they, in general, believe less crazy things (percentage of atheist young earthers compared to religious), we start getting a picture that being religious predisposes one to believing crazier things. Or certain thinking styles predisposes someone to being both religious and believing certain things.

    And I think this is the issue for Luke. To us, that differentiation is not that important, since the end result is the same.

    Category: AtheismCreationismEvolutionFeaturedPsychologyScience and religion


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce